Do you know where your head is?

Our heads are designed to sit neutrally on top of the spinal column so that our ears are aligned with our shoulders. Most of us in this society, however, hold our heads in an unnaturally forward position that creates strain on our necks (often causing headaches), rounding of our shoulders (reducing mobility), misalignment of the spine from its natural curves, and even reduced breathing capacity.

This often happens because of the time we spend on computers and other sedentary tasks that are performed with poor posture. The challenge is that most of us are entirely unaware that we are not holding our heads in alignment. How often do we even stop to think about where our heads are relative to the rest of our bodies? Given the amount of time that most of us spend “in our heads,” it’s ironic that we so seldom know where they are!

Yoga practice can be very helpful in teaching us to become aware of where our heads are and in learning to hold them in a more neutral position. Many postures, like tadasana (Mountain Pose), include a focus on holding our heads in alignment. However, it is also easy to create additional strain to an already challenged neck with other yoga postures are performed without taking stock of our head placement.

Yoga Journal has a wonderful article by well-known yoga teacher Richard Rosen called Get to the Root of Neck Problems that is full of suggestions for ways to use assistance from a partner to discover what it feels like hold your head in a neutral position. Given the many negative effects of holding your head too far forward, it’s well worth the time it takes to find out where your head should be so you can begin to retrain yourself to be aware of the location of your head relative to the rest of your body.

Do you know where your head is?

Breath of joy

In my last two posts, I talked about ways that we can use the breath as a calming practice by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Because so many of us spend much of our time with our sympathetic nervous system overstimulated, the introduction of calming practices is something that most of us will find the most beneficial.

However, there are times (like that afternoon slump) when we need something that will perk us up a bit and help us stay more alert. In moments like these, many of us reach for caffeine or sugar to achieve this energy boost, but both of these substances can have problematic side effects.

Fortunately, the breath can be used as a means of perking us up as well as for calming us! We have already explored the way that increasing the exhalation relative to the inhalation can bring a calming effect. The reverse is also true: increasing the inhalation relative to the exhalation brings an energizing effect.

The breath of joy, also known as the conductor breath or mad conductor’s breath, is a great way to do this because it includes this lengthening of the inhale relative to the exhale with physical movement to perk us up.

The breath of joy is performed standing and includes three inhales for each exhale. The steps to performing this breath are as follows:

  1. 1st inhale: sweep arms in front of body to overhead, then lower
  2.  2nd inhale: sweep arms out to sides to level with shoulders, then lower
  3. 3rd inhale: sweep arms in front of body back to overhead
  4. Exhale with a “HAAA” while sweeping arms down and bending over to allow arms to swing by knees
  5. Repeat

The YouTube video below may be helpful in seeing what this looks like. Notice how the expression on the face of the person performing the breath changes over the course of time. There is a reason this is called the Breath of Joy!

Full yogic breathing

In my last post, I talked about several ways that we can use the breath as a calming practice by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Taking deep breaths was one method I briefly mentioned for accomplishing this.

A full yogic breath, also called a three-part breath or a diaphragmatic breath, is very effective at accomplishing this task. This breath includes a complete filling of the lungs on the inhale to maximize the oxygen available to the blood and a complete exhale to fully release all stale air, carbon dioxide, and toxins that are excreted via the breath.

The diaphragm is a muscle that is extends across the bottom of the rib cage and separates the thoracic (chest) cavity from the abdominal cavity. As the diaphragm contracts, the thoracic cavity expands giving our lungs more room for air and causing us to inhale. It also presses down into the abdominal cavity causing our abdominal organs to be pressed outward. As the diaphragm relaxes, the air is forced back out of the lungs as the size of the thoracic cavity decreases and the abdominal organs settle back into place. This rhythmic change in the size of the abdominal cavity leads to this type of breathing sometimes being called “belly breathing” even though the breath does not literally fill the belly.

This breath can be done is any position, but sometimes it is easiest for beginners to get a feel for this breath by performing it while lying down because it makes the fluctuations in the abdomen easier to feel. In whatever position you choose, start with one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest.

As you deliberately take a deep inhalation, notice how your belly expands, then your ribcage expands, then your upper chest expands as your lungs fill completely with air. As you fully exhale, notice your upper chest, then your ribcage, and finally your belly softening back into place. Use your muscles to push that last bit of air completely out of the lungs before your next inhale. Repeat this several more times and notice how this feels in your body.

If at any point in time you begin to feel lightheaded or are struggling to maintain an even flow of breath, take a break and return to your normal breathing. Most of only use about 30% of our lung capacity on a regular basis, so this deeper breath will give the blood much more oxygen than you may be used to having.

This is a wonderful breath that will bring higher oxygen levels to the blood, a more efficient removal of breath-borne wastes, and a calming effect to the body. And it’s all free and easy to use!

Breath as a calming practice

Our autonomic nervous system, which acts as a control system of the body, has two subsystems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. (Some authors also include the enteric nervous system as part of the autonomic nervous system, but others do not. For simplicity’s sake, I will omit it from this discussion.)

Although the actions and interconnections of these two subsystems are quite complex, at a basic level the sympathetic nervous system is the subsystem that produces the flight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system is the subsystem that produces the relaxation response that brings us back to normal functioning. While the actions of both of these subsystems are useful and important, the fast pace and high stress of our culture tends to overstimulate the sympathetic nervous system compared to the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes a physical toll on our bodies over time.

Fortunately, there are several ways in which the breath can be used to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to bring about a calming effect and to counteract the negative effects that overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system has on our bodies.

The simple act of breathing through the nostrils is one way that the breath can help trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing through the nostrils has the additional benefits of warming, filtering, and moistening air before it reaches our lungs—benefits we miss out on when we breathe through the mouth. However, the simple act of the air passing through our nasal passages is one simple way to induce the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system in any situation.

In addition, the exhalation portion of the breath cycle triggers this calming response. The inhalation is activating, and the exhalation is calming. Obviously each breath needs to include both of these portions, but by extending the length of time spent exhaling compared to the amount of time spent on the inhale, we can generate a net calming effect. One way to do this is to inhale to a count of four and exhale to a count of eight. Adjust the counts used for the inhale and exhale to find something that is comfortable for you and does not cause your breath to become jerky or uneven, and be aware that the counts that are comfortable for you will likely lengthen over time as you practice.

The shallow breathing we normally use actually stimulates the sympathetic nervous system instead causing us great stress. Using a deep breathing that fully expands and contracts the lungs is another way to induce the parasympathetic nervous system. I will talk more about that in my next post, but I hope this one shows you that we have a marvelous tool in our breath—something we do all the time anyway—to counteract the stresses of our days without needing any fancy equipment or classes.

Just breathe!

Focusing the mind with the breath

In yoga, it is commonly said that the breath links the body and the mind.

Our bodies are always in the present moment and in the present space. Our minds, on the other hand, spend most of the time somewhere other than the present moment and space. We spend so much time thinking about the past and the future, which automatically takes us out of this moment where our body is located.

The technique of training the mind to focus on the breath brings our mind back into the present moment to join our bodies as we place our attention on the feeling of the breath moving in and out of bodies.

Try it for a moment. Notice the feel of the cool air as it enters your nostrils. Notice the feel of the warm air on your nostrils as you exhale. Notice how your body expands to make room for each inhale and how it softens on each exhale. As your mind wanders, continue to gently bring your focus back to your breath and just be aware of each breath entering, filling, and leaving your  body.

This focus on the breath is often the first step in developing a meditation practice because it induces mindfulness through its awareness of the present moment.